Technology Is Border Patrol’s ‘Highest Need’
Securing the U.S. border with Mexico is within reach – provided the government mounts a coordinated strategy focused on technology and people, rather than infrastructure alone, experts told Congress last week.
“There is not a one size fits all solution to border security,” David Aguilar, former deputy commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) told the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee April 4. The border is complex and varied, changing with terrain, the seasons and the way in which it’s defended. Illegal cross-border activity ranging from drug smuggling to human trafficking ebbs and flows as the border patrol and criminal gangs engage in a continuous game of cat and mouse, each adapting every time a new tactic is introduced.
Technology, however, holds the key.
“Technology is going to be the highest need the border patrol has,” said Aguilar, now a Principal at Washington, D.C.-based security consultant Global Security and Innovative Strategies (GSIS). “It gives you situational awareness, it gives you intelligence and it gives you the capability to respond in an effective manner – and in a safe manner, as well.”
In urban areas, gangs move drugs through tunnels under the border wall or bundle their illicit cargo in packages. Outside of town in less crowded areas, they launch packages over walls with home-made cannon and catapults.
Lawmakers from both parties along with Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary John Kelly concede a full-fledged border wall “from sea to shining sea” may not be needed. Some areas will need two or three rows of fencing; others need defoliation and roadbeds for patrols. But regardless of how much hard infrastructure is added, the border patrol needs the intelligence-gathering capacity of cameras and the deterrent value of bright lights and loudspeakers.
That’s where the Remote Video Surveillance Systems (RVSS) comes into the picture. RVSS is a proven concept already in use in Texas and Arizona, where it has played a key role in reducing trafficking and reducing casualties on the border.
Yuma County, Ariz., was once one of the most porous stretches along the border. Not anymore.
“In 2005-2006, Yuma County was the worst in the nation in regards to cross-border traffic and the criminal element that accompanies it,” said Leon Wilmot, sheriff of Yuma County, Ariz., in February testimony before the House Committee on Homeland Security. “Our officers were going out there if not weekly, monthly, to attend to victims who were left there to die. The combination of fencing, law enforcement, presence on the border and the technology with cameras and sensors – to be able to detect individuals crossing the desert – was all a contributing factor in reducing that criminal element and of individuals being victimized [through] rapes, robberies and homicides.”
“RVSS increases situational awareness and enhances officer safety through a number of factors,” according to a CBP spokesman. “First and foremost, it is a deterrence. Think of RVSS as a home which has an alarm and security camera system. That particular home is much less likely to be burglarized than one that doesn’t have those layers of security.”
The first RVSS systems were deployed along the northern and southern border between 1997 and 2005. Upgrades on the southern border were completed by General Dynamics Information Technology (GDIT) in 2016 and the agency announced in February it was seeking other upgrades and additional installations.
RVSS employs day and night cameras, loudspeakers and floodlights. In the most remote areas, motion and seismic detectors may be used to trigger alerts, the CBP spokesman said. “CBP is always looking for and testing new technology to combat the threats we face.”
Along the southwest border, CBP pilots the use of trailer-mounted RVSS towers that can be repositioned as needs change. Unlike legacy RVSS platforms, they don’t require construction, reducing cost and increasing flexibility. These relocatable systems are seen as a complement to conventional RVSS, rather than a replacement.
In a request for information published in January, CBP said it is “contemplating an expansion of the RVSS Upgrade Program throughout the entire [southwest] and northern border.” The solicitation states “the RVSS Upgrade program will provide day/night surveillance from stationary and re-locatable locations with dedicated power and command, control and communications capability managed remotely by operators. … [and] will additionally support vectoring of Border Patrol Agents (BPA) … for event resolution and provide continuous monitoring of encounters for BPA safety.” The number of these RVSS Upgrade systems will vary by geography and operational needs, and the agency anticipates upgrading control stations at every Border Patrol Station. RVSS Upgrade Subsystems will be mounted on existing RVSS infrastructure or on other new or existing towers, rooftops or other structures.
The technology works as a piece of a system, in which barriers and technology are used to raise not only the physical barriers to illegal border crossing, but also the psychological and logistical ones.
“Agents alone can’t stop every intrusion,” says Robert Gilbert, a former sector chief at CBP and now a senior program director for RVSS at systems integrator General Dynamics Information Technology (GDIT). “It’s the combination of physical barriers, advanced detection technology and manned patrols that raises the stakes for intruders, increasing the time and effort it takes to get across, and influencing their decisions. When the risks become great enough, fewer people will try to cross, and that means more agents will be available to take on those that remain. But it’s the technology that makes that equation possible.”
Aguilar agrees. “The purpose of the fence is to deter, to impede – to basically create more time and distance for the officers to be able to responsibly react and take action,” he said.
Adding officers is another critical piece of the strategy. DHS has announced plans to add 5,000 more border agents, but that could take years to accomplish. Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., the senior Democrat on the House Homeland Security Committee, noted in a February hearing that the CBP continues to struggle to keep the uniformed officers it has, let alone add new ones. The border patrol is short some 1,500 officers now, even before new positions are added. He sees increased use of surveillance technologies as the answer.
“If we can see somebody five, 10, 20 miles away, approaching an area, and if we have the ability to communicate with local law enforcement and [CBP agents on the ground], we could direct more assets to that area for interdiction,” he said.
At that same hearing, Steve McCraw, director of the Texas Department of Public Safety and a former FBI agent, told lawmakers that there is no doubt that the combination of technology and human focus can change the security equation along the border.
“We’ve seen over time that you can influence the amount of drugs coming in and the amount of illegal aliens coming in – there’s no question about it. It’s border control physics,” he said. Technology must be “stacked,” beginning with cameras and towers and continuing up through aircraft, he said.
But just having the technology is not enough, he added. It must be continually maintained and upgraded.
“We don’t need yesterday’s technology for tomorrow,” McCraw said. Some existing “sensors are archaic,” and government must look to the private sector – “the experts in developing technology and making it work” – to ensure the border patrol has the equipment it needs to get the job done.
From a situational awareness standpoint, Border Patrol agents cannot be everywhere all the time, said Peter Howard, senior director at GDIT. “Having the ability to remotely detect illicit activity and threats increases the efficiency of operations and helps make sure the right number of agents get the call for any given situation. That makes a difference. It increases safety and also confidence, and the combination makes everyone more effective.”
Ronald Colburn, consultant for Washington, D.C.-based security firm Command Group and former deputy chief of U.S. Customs and Border Patrol, said the risks along the border are not always fully appreciated. “The violence of the [Mexican drug] cartels makes ISIS look like amateurs,” he said.
But increasing personnel, infrastructure and technology works, he said. “Those are the things that slowed illegal criminal activity.”
What will it take for future improvements?
“The right mix, rapidly deployed,” Colburn said. “Without the tactical infrastructure, [the border] is too weak. Without the right number of agents, it is too weak. Without the right mix of technology it is too weak.” That technology has to be “integratable,” he added, and must be replaced and upgraded over time to remain effective. And it must be deployed in concert with the other two elements of the strategy.
“Without the tactical infrastructure, we will not have accomplished border security,” Colburn said. “With it, along with technology and manpower, I feel we will finally see that light at the end of the tunnel. We will finally secure the border – not just in stretches, but all of it.”